Keeping it real in photography

Posted: 21st November 2008 by Anthony van Winkle
Categories: Behind-the-Scenes Photos, Episode 1 - "Ashes", On Location, Photography

On shooting a post-apocalyptic photographic novel without greenscreens or CGI, entirely on location

I’ve never been a fan of the (now standard) practice of “phoning in” set locations, props, and visual elements. Most likely coming from my theater background, when everything has to be real, I cannot stand when films opt for the easy, cheap solution of standing actors in front of green screens and faking everything else. While a film like Jurassic Park or Lord of the Rings benefits tremendously from the investment of shooting on-location, films like (the new) Star Wars and 300 come off as cheap hacks. I give credit to the actors that can manage to act in a bright green void, but loathe the directors and producers who take that cop out.

With Night Zero, I insist that all of our shoots be on location, all of our costumes and props real, all of our actors in the moment. Nothing in Night Zero is on a green screen, and we rely on post-production only for things that are impossible to shoot in HDR– splattering blood, for example, which would not hold still for three exposures. Action sequences are staged stationary, and given blur and speed-line enhancements to indicate motion. And sometimes, shots are broken up into multiple elements, to split focus between multiple entities.

In trying to keep our shoots low-impact, we opt for light gear that focuses on a small, personal area, rather than covering a huge space. This makes our shoots more flexible and a bit quicker, but can leave us vulnerable to larger problems, such as we faced when shooting this week’s action sequence. And by larger problems, I mean the sun.

If you can work it, the sun is an excellent light source. It generates strong ambient lighting, can be diffused and reflected, and doesn’t require a power source. Unfortunately, when you have two or three actors in different places, and are using light gear for small areas, it’s not so easy to light them all consistently. At least, not all at the same time.

Split photography is something we do with Night Zero a lot, normally when we have two characters at different depths that we want to keep in focus. On this shoot, it was essential to break the photos into separate targets for Katrina & Tamara separately, not just to get full-focus, but to be able to diffuse and light them both similarly.

Foreground shot, Katrina lit & focused

Foreground shot, Katrina lit & focused. You can see the glare and shadowing on Tamara, who is in direct sunlight.

Background shot, Tamara lit & focused

Background shot, Tamara lit & focused. She is now diffused, as Katrina was previously. When combined, these shots put them in the same environment with the same light.

With this method, we can have a more comic-book look, with everything in focus, or more film look, with a specific focus. Having the ability to choose which one we use means that in Night Zero, focus is an artistic decision rather than a limit of technology.

Single shot, one focus. This direct contrast to the previous frame throws the focus to Katrina, emphasizing her expression.

Single shot, one focus. This direct contrast to the previous frame throws the focus to Katrina, emphasizing her expression and setting the tone for the next page.

Sometimes people will do a double-take when they see Night Zero photos, convinced that we’re cheating or green-screening to get the images as sharp as we have. In reality, it’s that people are accustomed to seeing photographs with a limited depth of field, and when a photograph violates the laws of the lens, it can be startling. Comic books are always in focus, but the brain isn’t bothered because illustrations don’t follow the same rules as photos. Amusingly, the exact opposite focus can be done to trick the brain in a technique called tilt-shift miniature.

Episode One will be wrapping up in the next few weeks, but don’t worry. We’ve got some special surprises to keep you satisfied until Episode Two premieres in January.

Noah, the zombie Jesus

Noah, the zombie Jesus

Even terror can be funny

Even terror can be funny

It's a grisly business

It's a grisly business

Forest shows Tamara the shots

Forest shows Tamara the shots

Zombie Jesus rises to feast on the flesh of the living. Or maybe he's a vampire.

Zombie Jesus rises to feast on the flesh of the living. Or maybe he's a vampire.

Thankfully, Tamara is here to save the day.

Thankfully, Tamara is here to save the day.

...after a little instruction from yours truly.

...after a little instruction from yours truly.

We have two types of blood-- one tastes of mint, the other of chocolate. Katrina's got 'em both.

We have two types of blood-- one tastes of mint, the other of chocolate. Katrina's got 'em both.